Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Review: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

The final book on my 2014 Summer Classic Film Book Reading List is FIVE CAME BACK: A STORY OF HOLLYWOOD AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Mark Harris.

It's been a near thing getting this book, which is just over 500 pages, read in time for the challenge's September 1st deadline! I've been trying to squeeze it in every moment, from a quick car trip to Arizona a few days ago to lunch breaks -- but really, that's a good way to try to fit any book into a busy schedule. Fortunately my proofreading work slowed down just a bit in recent days due to client summer vacations, which gave me more time for pleasure reading.

FIVE CAME BACK tells the story of five of Hollywood's greatest directors, John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra, how these men of diverse backgrounds impacted World War II, and how the war in turn impacted them. All five men went to work filming military documentaries during World War II, then came home and made key films including Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1945), Ford's THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945), and Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).

The men each served for a few years, recording (and occasionally re-enacting) history as it happened. Ford was wounded at the Battle of Midway, Wyler flew combat missions over Germany, and a sickened Stevens recorded what was found when Dachau was liberated. "No rumor or report...prepared the first Allied soldiers into the camps... For some of the men in Stevens's unit, simply bearing witness to so much suffering without taking action themselves was impossible. They abandoned their cameras...One of them...started wandering from bed to bed in the camp's first makeshift infirmary, letting the dying dictate letters to their relatives while he wrote around the clock. He didn't stop or sleep for days."

It's a big book which covers a great deal of territory from the years 1938 to 1947, but it's well-organized, well-written, and extensively sourced. (The author spent five years doing primary source research.) It's an important history, and it's also an enjoyable and interesting read.

FIVE CAME BACK was published by the Penguin Press. It's 511 pages including the index. There are two sections of photographs printed on glossy paper.

A recommended read.

Here are additional reviews of FIVE CAME BACK by film historians Leonard Maltin and Thomas Doherty. The Self-Styled Siren interviewed author Mark Harris, and Lou Lumenick discusses how the directors "restaged" some of the scenes in their documentaries. Lou includes links to a few of their famous wartime films including Wyler's THE MEMPHIS BELLE (1944) and Huston's SAN PIETRO (1945).


Blogger LĂȘ said...

This book sounds FASCINATING! Stevens' recollection of the liberation of Dachau left me speechless :(

10:21 AM  

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